Disability Action Center Northwest in Moscow joined a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court against the Idaho Legislature, House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate Pro Tempore Chuck Winder over inadequate COVID-19 safety protocols at the Statehouse.
“We just have been really wanting to have the state Legislature work with us to figure out some ways that people could safely access the premises or the programs,” said Mark Leeper, DACNW executive director.
Besides DACNW, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Ahniah Selene; Kassie Howe; DisAbility Rights Idaho; Living Independence Network Corporation Idaho; Life, A Center for Independent Living; and Intermountain Fair Housing Council.
According to a DACNW news release, it is imperative that people with disabilities have access to testify when the legislative session plans to discuss things like cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, not moving forward with Medicaid expansion, fair housing, transportation and other issues that directly affect them.
Leeper said there has been no assurance that social distancing and face coverings are going to be required or that remote testimony will be accessible to residents.
“We do not want to choose between exercising our constitutional and statutory rights and our health,” Leeper said in the release. “By not being able to equitably participate in the 2021 legislative session, our rights will be violated. Those we represent are among the most vulnerable in our state.”
Face coverings are encouraged in the House and Senate but Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow, and Rep. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee, said most legislators in their respective chambers do not wear masks. However, each said they wear a mask themselves.
Nelson said it is rare that a resident who watches legislative proceedings in person wears a face covering and he anticipates those who testify will not wear masks. He said he would like masks to be required, remote testimony to be available and in-person testimony to be discouraged or eliminated.
“It’s going to be intimidating for anybody to testify in person at the Capitol because of the atmosphere,” he said.
Nelson said he believes residents will be able to testify remotely in the Senate as bills move through.
When asked whether the COVID-19 protocols in the Legislature are adequate, Troy said, “I guess we’ll see,” adding that it will be known soon enough how many legislators contract the virus.
As for remote testimony, Troy said she has been pushing for it since she was elected to the Legislature in 2014.
However, she warned there could be bugs to work out if remote testimony is expanded.
Troy said she even experienced buffering during Gov. Brad Little’s virtual State of the State Address on Monday at the state Capitol, which Troy was watching remotely just down the hall from where the governor was giving his speech.
“I can’t afford not to have 100 percent connectivity in that representation,” said Troy, raising the hypothetical situation of if she conducted her legislative work remotely. “I can’t afford to be in the middle of an important debate and be buffered or get disconnected because that’s a disservice to my constituents, so what’s the answer?”
Garrett Cabeza can be reached at (208) 883-4631, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.